Media Freedom

Without fear or favour: The Cambodia Daily

Philanthropist and foreign correspondent Bernie Krisher launched a daily newspaper in 1993 with a handful of journalists working out of an old hotel. By the time the Cambodia Daily closed amid a fiery dispute with the government, it had become one of the region’s most respected sources of news

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October 3, 2017
Without fear or favour: The Cambodia Daily
The Cambodia Daily’s obsessive founder and publisher, Bernie Krisher. Photo: Jun Takagi / TIME

By mid-morning the shelves were empty. At a cluster of newsstands in the shadow of Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka, vendors twisted their hands to signal that they were sold out – copies of the country’s oldest English-language daily had left the stands for the last time.

For those who had managed to lay their hands on that last issue of the Cambodia Daily, this is what they saw: buried in the midst of the paper, two pages were left blank. Before a printer’s error stripped them of their meaning, they had held the second half of an article tracing the history of the paper from its quixotic beginnings at the birth of Cambodia’s experiment with democracy in the early 1990s. Now, they remained mute: an unasked-for tribute to a long-running story abruptly silenced.

Shuttered last month amid the Cambodian government’s crusade against independent media, the Cambodia Daily grew from a hotel-room operation driven by a handful of journalists and an obsessive publisher to one of the most respected English-language newspapers a region with little tolerance for critical journalism. Those turbulent years gave birth to two generations of reporters dedicated to pushing the boundaries of the free press in Cambodia – and a readership that recognised just how precious a thing that was.

Co-founding editor Robin McDowell, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize with the Associated Press for coverage of human trafficking in the Gulf of Thailand, described how the tiny team that had been assembled by mid-1993 to get the paper off the ground would work well into the early hours of the morning, grinding to get out the next day’s edition.

“When I showed up in August it was nothing – we were working out of the Renakse Hotel, there were a couple of computers there and we basically started from scratch trying to find reporters,” she said. “There really weren’t any that were qualified to work in a free press environment, so we just started interviewing people – and it was anyone we could find. There were a couple of policemen, there was a pagoda boy, a couple of motorcycle taxi drivers and we basically just started training them to be journalists.”

It was a tradition that the Daily would continue until the end. Chhorn Chansy, whose tenure as news editor ended with the paper’s final deadline, described his move from provincial teacher to Phnom Penh reporter as a disorienting experience. Having arrived on a bus from remote Ratanakiri province, Chansy’s first major news story – the forced eviction of lakeside communities surrounding the now-barren Boeung Kak lake –almost didn’t make it from pitch to page.

“I didn’t know where it was,” he said, laughing. “So I had to ride around asking people, and I couldn’t find it. I had to come back to my office. One of my editors was very angry at me – because that day was the first time that [real estate developer] Shukaku started filling up Boeung Kak lake. They asked me to go back, and finally I found it – and it was so sad.”

From left: former Daily editor Dave Bloss, Krisher, Hun Sen and reporter Lor Chandara in 2002. Photo: Vinh Dao

Other local reporters, like 20-year veteran Van Roeun, had come from newspapers that concerned themselves more with ribbon-cutting ceremonies and press releases than proper reporting. Growing up in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border until the UN-brokered elections of 1993, Roeun was only too aware of the voices drowned out by the Cambodian mainstream media’s slavish devotion to the ruling elite, which was carving up the country for their own personal interests.

Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe just days before the Daily closed its doors, Roeun described his shift from translation work at the now-defunct weekly Cambodia Times to the Daily’s business and environment beats.

“The news that we focused on was just what happened – the government inaugurating a school, or a bridge,” he said. “But when I came to the Daily it was very different – we were focused on hard news and in-depth investigations. We wrote professionally, we wrote accurately and we verified our facts. It was not just based on what the government said.”

As first years go, they don’t come much tougher. As the fragile peace following the 1993 elections began to fray, power struggles within a ruling coalition of convenience and lingering fears over remnants of the Khmer Rouge ended in a bloody showdown that forced the royalist Funcinpec party from power and consolidated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s control.

“It was a shocking year for me,” Roeun said. As battles raged on the streets of Phnom Penh, much of the Daily’s staff lived in the office, some days delivering photocopied newspapers to whomever they could until the printer began operating again.

As today, it was the Cambodian reporters that ran the greatest risk of reprisal for the Daily’s articles. For McDowell, there were times when it was a struggle to balance the desire to protect local journalists and pursue the newspaper’s mission.

“When we sent reporters out to do interviews, it was easy to say to a local reporter: ‘Oh, you need to talk to all sides,’ but we’d need a comment from the Khmer Rouge. And at that time the Khmer Rouge had an office in Phnom Penh – and they’d be scared to death to go there,” she said.

Driven by the unrelenting will and carefully rationed resources of Tokyo-based journalist and philanthropist Bernard Krisher, who would officially remain the publisher of the Daily until its end, the paper relied in its early days on the grudging tolerance of influential figures such as King Norodom Sihanouk, whose friendship with Krisher is widely  believed to have shielded the paper from the tycoons and petty tyrants it so regularly targeted.

Krisher flanked by editors Gretchen Peters (left), Matt Lee and Barton Biggs in the mid-1990s

Even among those who  admired his generosity, Krisher remains a polarising figure capable of evoking both fierce loyalty and furious invective. Speaking to Southeast Asia Globe from his native Ireland, former Daily editor in chief Kevin Doyle, whose tenure stretched from 2004 to 2014, described a man driven by a social mission to improve the lives of all Cambodians – and a boss who gave him just three weeks to pack up his life and move to the other side of the world.

“I had to sell my car and move to Cambodia, because that was the only opportunity he was going to give,” he said. “That’s what he was like – he was a really tough publisher. I mean, he was old school. I got there and the computers were 20 years old. There were two landline phones – if we wanted to do an interview, we had to sit and wait for someone to get off the line. Bernie didn’t want to give us the internet at the beginning – he thought it would hamper us as journalists. He was all about shoe-leather journalism – getting out there and talking to people.”

For Ryun Patterson, who served as night editor of the Daily from 1999 to 2003, his first encounter with the man who would dominate his life in Cambodia proved a surreal experience.

“I sent my resume in to Bernie. And Bernie, what he would do at the time is, he would fly across America and make stops and interview people in the airport,” he said. “I went to O’Hare airport in Chicago, walked all the way into the red carpet lounge and there’s Bernie Krisher with a big pile of papers just sitting there. And he grilled me for like an hour.”

Krisher’s impact on Cambodia goes well beyond the Daily. As the founder of Japan Relief for Cambodia and World Assistance for Cambodia, he launched programmes that included efforts to fight human trafficking by keeping young girls in school, bring the internet to rural villages, fund higher education for gifted students and build more than 550 rural schools.

“The United States… inflicted great pain on Cambodia by bombing and killing its population to wage the Vietnam War.  As an American, I felt it my duty to compensate the Cambodians for the damage my country inflicted on them,” Krisher is quoted as saying on the website of his two non-profits – a statement that takes on extra poignance following the shuttering of the Daily amid a flurry of anti-American sentiment from the Cambodian government. 

In his mind at least, Krisher made his own rules as he built his charity empire. In a 2006 article in the Christian Science Monitor, he said a delay in obtaining a building permit was not going to stop him from building a new dormitory. “I’m not going through this nonsense of red tape; I’m gonna break the law because there’s a higher law – helping people. I’ll call Sihanouk and Hun Sen if I must.”

Krisher’s commitment to improving the lives of ordinary Cambodians was matched only by his ability to make those of his editors as frustrating as possible. 

Reporters Katie Nelson (left) and Phorn Bopha in the field in the late 2000s. Photo: Vinh Dao

A micromanager who would return each day’s issue of the Daily dense with corrections and critiques, the former Newsweek correspondent’s obsessive devotion to what he saw as the fundamentals of journalism pushed the paper’s often inexperienced staff to their limits. According to Doyle, this painstaking attention to detail – as infuriating as it could be – drove the paper’s transformation into one of Cambodia’s most indispensable national news resources.

“I had two jobs – one was to get out the Cambodia Daily. The other was to deal with Bernie Krisher so we could get out the Cambodia Daily,” Doyle laughed. “Bernie was the most exacting, demanding publisher you could ever work for. He would send dozens of emails sometimes in a day – and they would all have to be responded to on that day. But he kept the standards of journalism very high as a result.”

In April 2017, 86-year-old Krisher – whose ailing health had drawn him away from the Daily’s day-to-day operations for years – sold the paper to his daughter Deborah Krisher-Steele for a token sum. Under pressure from Cambodia’s tax department to move away from her father’s informal business practices, Krisher-Steele registered the paper as a company for the first time and began paying taxes accordingly.

Less than six months later, however, the tax office presented the new business with a bill – promptly leaked to pro-government media – demanding a staggering $6.3m in what it claimed was a decade’s worth of unpaid taxes. There was to be no independent audit, no good-faith negotiation – the Daily had just one month to cough up the money or close down. On the afternoon before the deadline arrived, the Daily announced that it was done.

“If the government doesn’t like the way I ran the paper for the past 24 years, they should come after me,” Krisher wrote in a letter published in the final edition. “I take full responsibility for how I operated. It they want to prosecute anyone, I will come back, because I did this… The charges against my newspaper are the regime’s thuggish attempt to disable our operations in haste.”

“They don’t want to get the voice from the opposition or the critics, only good news – the government is good, the powerful people are good – because critical news can affect their popularity. And the truth affects their popularity too.”

Van Roen, Senior Editor

Though the newspaper has ceased publishing and cleared out its Phnom Penh office, the government has banned Douglas Steele, the newspaper’s general manager and Krisher-Steele’s husband, from leaving the country until the multimillion-dollar tax bill is paid.

Jodie DeJonge, who served as editor in chief of the Daily for the final few months before its last issue hit the stands, said the paper had been caught between fading financial fortunes and a government assault on Cambodia’s free press.

“When I came on as editor in April, even then I feared I might be the last editor of the Daily – for two reasons,” she said. “One, I was seeing this ratcheting up of pressure from the government. And two, I knew the paper was in perilous financial condition – it had been cutting, it had been taking away small benefits, in an effort to stay alive. And I knew that if those two things collided… then we could easily reach the point where the Daily couldn’t go on.” 

Daily editors and reporters gather around former managing editor James Welsh (seated). Photo: Vinh Dao

Van Roeun, who finished his time at the Daily as its senior editor, said that the closure of the Daily revealed how worried the ruling party is about losing power and popular support.

“They want to tone down all the critics,” he said. “They don’t want to get the voice from the opposition or the critics, only good news – the government is good, the powerful people are good – because critical news can affect their popularity. And the truth affects their popularity too.”

The night before the Daily’s final deadline, opposition leader Kem Sokha was hauled from his home and taken to a high-security prison on the Vietnam border on charges of treason. Hun Sen warned the opposition that any sign of support for their imprisoned leader could lead to the entire party’s dissolution.

With the opposition in disarray, the Cambodian People’s Party’s campaign against critical media, which has led to the closure of 32 radio stations across the country and the Cambodia office of Radio Free Asia, is well-timed to silence dissent and criticism ahead of next year’s national election.

With only 2% of Cambodia’s population believed to read newspapers, the loss of the Daily may not seem hugely significant on the surface. And for its critics, the paper’s power to report with impunity for almost a quarter of a century owed more to its small audience and relatively limited influence than lofty connections or quality journalism.

But others note that the newspaper’s few thousand readers were comprised of politicians, business leaders and international functionaries whose decisions dominate civic life across the country, including Hun Sen himself.

“The Cambodia Daily was a  mirror to reflect, to show the government or the officials what they had done,” news editor Chansy said. “If they did something wrong, and we wrote a story, they could be flexible – like, OK, this is a mistake – and they could reform it. But they just wanted to shut our mouths – and so they’ve lost the benefit of a media that can show everything to this country.”

The Daily was a publication that touched the lives of both the most vulnerable members of society and those that seemed most invincible. Roeun recalls a time when his reporting on the hill tribes of Ratanakiri province in Cambodia’s north brought the two worlds together.

At the turn of the century, a proposed revision to local land law threatened to strip those indigenous hill tribes of their collective rights to the land they had lived on for centuries. With the government seemingly eager to flog their ancestral homes to the highest bidder, the draft law looked certain to sail through the National Assembly. But it didn’t.

“King Sihanouk at the time, he read the paper and then wrote a request to the government to resolve the problem based on the article,” Roeun said. “I felt very proud of it. And when that happens, it means people start to care about the news. People start to care about the truth.”

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